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Gendered experiences of educational migrant returnees during the COVID-19 pandemic

Chiedza M Skyum_caption_Malaso Nkoiboo,

Malaso Nkoiboo, ALU student.

When the whole world is working and studying from home in their bedrooms, living rooms and family homes, the once-clear lines between private/personal and public/professional become blurred. What was once perceived as an anomaly – for instance in 2017, when a BBC interviewee’s children ran into the background of his news interview – is now becoming the norm. Everyone is navigating balancing work from home and family demands. This consideration should not only be limited to professionals in the working world, but needs to be extended to students, who are facing the same demands. The shift from being on a university campus where their focus was only on their studies to being back home with their families adds stress factors that can potentially hinder their educational journeys and success. This article explores some of these factors and how students from the African Leadership University in Rwanda have learned to navigate and negotiate their way to balancing studies and family obligations.


The African Leadership University (ALU) is a University in Kigali, Rwanda with students that hail from over 40 countries around the African continent. When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, ALU had no choice but to encourage students to return to their home countries. This was speedily facilitated by multiple departments working together at the University since the fear was that students would get ‘stuck’ in lockdown in Rwanda far away from their families. Flights were scheduled and students flew home. It was declared that there would be no interruption to the students’ learning as classes would continue online.


However, in addition to issues with internet connection, bandwidth, access to tech and remoteness of some of the students’ homes, additional societal barriers existed that hindered some students from being able to continue with their classes. A survey completed by forty second-year students from ALU in mid-September 2020 showed that 92% of the students claim to have family obligations and roles/tasks that they are obliged to do giving them less time to focus on their studies than if they were on campus in Kigali.


Gender inequality in education is already a chronic and persistent issue in many African states, and even though much progress is being made in providing access and reducing drop-out rates of girls, the COVID-19 pandemic that has sent students back home appears to have taken some students a few steps backwards. In many societies, girls and women are responsible for doing the majority of childcare tasks and domestic work in a household. Early on, teachers like myself began to receive emails from students who could not dedicate the needed time for their classes. One female student from Kenya had multiple siblings whose schools were closed and needed home-schooling and care. Another female student’s father was forced out of his job so her mother became a vendor and she in turn did the cooking and cleaning for the entire household. Then there was the female student caring for her ill grandmother who needed palliative care. These inquiries led me to write this article. Would these students be experiencing the same if they were of another gender? To what extent is the education of a male child prioritised over the education of a female child today?


70% of surveyed students listed often ‘gendered’ domestic duties like cooking, cleaning and laundry as the majority of the work they were required to do. Childcare and/or home-schooling of younger siblings or relatives came in as the second time-consuming task and working in a family business/shop came in as the third. One student from Rwanda who returned home to another province said, ‘as it is locally believed that women are the ones responsible for home chores, hence this is why most of the house chores like cooking and laundry end up to be done by women’. A student from Côte d’Ivoire commented, ‘in my tradition, women have to cook and do all the work at home while men do nothing because they are men and they are not allowed to do anything at home apart from study and pray’. A male Nigerian student said, ‘I am aware that more is required of my sisters at home, but I have to work with my dad – the hours are the same but the tasks are different’.


The family expectations and the de-prioritisation of young women’s education by their families have affected their educational journeys. Without COVID-19, they would have continued as resident students whose time was committed fully to their studies. It became evident in the survey that those male students that had no female siblings did not experience the same, as they were the ones who were then expected to complete the needed household tasks. It was female students with male siblings who had the most to say in the comments sections, as they compared what their brothers in the house were asked to do. ‘I cannot sit down expecting my brothers to do the cooking or other housework’. Another Rwandan student said, ‘I live in a family of a lot of boys so I’m expected to do the housework because apparently boys in my house can’t cook or do stuff if there’s a girl around’.


On the question of whether or not the students believed that the tasks assigned to them had anything to do with gender, one student from Sierra Leone highlighted another cultural aspect – age. ‘My chores are tied to the fact that I am the youngest in the family. It is like a norm to say when you are the youngest, you get to do the chores and it is affecting me so much.’ A Ghanaian student did not see a gendered element in her household tasks, ‘There is nothing to do with my gender in regards to the obligations. My brother also works as much.’


When asked how they are adjusting themselves to their new normal, the majority of survey respondents said that communicating their schedules to their families and including family tasks on the schedules have aided in easing the pressure. Many say that they just work many more hours in the day and hope to ‘survive’ this trying time. 


Empathy is the word of the year at ALU as lecturers who are facilitating online classes have learned that personalised empathetic approaches to student concerns and struggles are best for their learning journeys and most effective for their success. In these tough times, easing the pressure on deadlines, allowing for more flexibility and providing multiple pathways for students to engage with class content have helped ALU students to feel seen, heard and understood.

Chiedza M SkyumS.JPG

Chiedza Mutsaka Skyum

I am a researcher and educator in the field of migration. I have been in forced migration for years and now, since working at this multinational pan-African institution with students from up to seventeen African countries in one classroom, my interest in education migration has grown.

Recently getting my feet wet in educational migration.

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